Unified? Looking at life in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem

Day-to-day life for east Jerusalem residents is not simple.

March 4, 2017 17:39
Beit Hanina

A view of Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

There are numerous high-rise buildings in the Shuafat refugee camp, many of which were constructed without building permits. There’s an IDF roadblock at the entrance of the camp. At the Border Police unit stationed near the camp I chat with a soldier who tells me, “The residents of the camp do whatever they feel like. They build without permits, construct drug labs, trade in weapons – and no one does anything to enforce any sort of law.”

Gihon, the Israeli water and sewage conglomerate, recently began laying new sewage lines in the camp. “We often don’t have water for bathing. The sewage pipes are always exploding and flooding the ground here. We’re not really part of the city,” a camp resident tells me. “We’re always begging the authorities to come help us get rid of all the crime and illegal drugs, but nobody cares. We hope things will improve soon.”

When do you think that’ll happen, he is asked.

“Only Allah knows. But there are Jews who care and are trying to help us improve our standard of living. The Israeli government doesn’t consider us part of the city of Jerusalem. We’re busy just trying to survive.”

In Isawiya, the village that borders French Hill, there’s a Border Police unit stationed at the top of the hill that overlooks the village and makes sure that local young people don’t make too much trouble. Residents of surrounding villages don’t freely enter Isawiya. It’s another bubble situated inside the city of Jerusalem. Here, too, village leaders try to keep the day-to-day activities in operation, such as schools and community centers, but they also feel they are being neglected for the most part.

“We’re trying to keep emotions calm in the village, but there’s a lot of anger simmering here,” says a young man who lives there, “but even when there’s nothing going on, a Border Police jeep will drive down the main street and then the mess begins all over again. But do you want to know what the weirdest part is? Not many of us would rather live in the Palestinian Authority, since it’s a mess there, too.”

EAST JERUSALEM neighborhoods made headlines again a couple of weeks ago following the vehicle-ramming attack at the Armon Hanatziv promenade, in which four soldiers were killed. The terrorist attack was carried out by a resident of the Jebl Mukaber neighborhood.

There are currently 850,000 people living in Jerusalem. About 310,000 of them are Arabs who live in east Jerusalem, and they have permanent residency, not citizenship. They do not have the right to vote in national elections, but they can vote in municipal elections, a right which most of them choose not to take advantage of. Day-to-day life for east Jerusalem residents is not simple. It is considerably different from the lives of Arabs with Israeli citizenship or Arabs living in the West Bank.

East Jerusalem is a fragmented and politically passive society. There’s no unified leadership, social organizations or cultural institutions. Most residents live in poverty and hopelessness. Roads are falling apart, services are less than satisfactory, and they experience discrimination on a daily basis. As the Arab neighborhoods transition from a traditional patriarchal society to a modern society that focuses on the individual, the rate of divorce and domestic violence against women and children is rising.

A checkpoint outside Isawiya (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

According to Prof. Yitzhak Reiter, who leads the East Jerusalem Mapping Team at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, there are 22 neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, most of which are separate villages that were added to the State of Israel in 1967. To the north, there are Beit Hanina, Shuafat, Shuafat refugee camp, Kafr Akab, Ras Shahada, Ras Hamis and Isawiya. To the south, there are Walaja, Sur Bahir, Umm Lisan, Umm Tuba, Jebl Mukaber, Ras al-Amud, Silwan, Esh-Sheikh, Beit Safafa and Sharafat. A number of neighborhoods that used to be under Jordanian control were also annexed to Israel: the Old City, Bab Sahara, Wadi Joz, Sheikh Jarrah and E-Tur, which includes Sawana, where Faisal Husseini lived.

The vast majority of east Jerusalem residents are Muslim. 46% are under the age of 18, 36% are unemployed, and 51% live below the poverty line.

They have Jordanian passports, but this doesn’t offer them any real rights. West Bank residents consider them traitors because they have blue identity cards.

To the Israeli authorities, on the other hand, they are residents, but not citizens.

According to Reiter, the Armon Hanatziv attack was the result of a combination of factors: the catastrophic situation in the neighborhoods and the feeling that they have nothing to lose; the feeling that the Israeli government backs ideological and religious organizations that want to take over al-Aksa Mosque; and the sense of political deadlock following the election of Donald Trump and his intention to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.

“Following the 1967 war, the municipality wanted to expand the borders of the city so that it could develop more land,” says Reiter. “Beit Hanina and Shuafat were included within the city limits so that Atarot Airport could be considered part of Jerusalem.

They wanted to be able to call it the Jerusalem International Airport in the future. As we know, this didn’t work out so well. E-Tur was added to Jerusalem so that we could gain control over the eastern slopes of the Jordan Valley. Isawiya was added following the Rhodes Agreement, and today its residents suffer from severe deprivation, violence and lack of infrastructure.

Israeli security forces do not even go inside the village. It’s like the chicken and the egg – the moment there’s violence, the police are afraid to go there.”

At the end of 2015, Haim Ramon and the National Security Council came up with a plan to unilaterally withdraw from most of east Jerusalem and transfer authority over these neighborhoods to the Palestinian Authority. In other words, these neighborhoods would become part of Area B, which means that the Palestinian Authority would be in charge of civilian activity while the IDF would retain control of security issues. According to this plan, the Old City, Silwan and the Mount of Olives would remain under Israeli control, and the rest would be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. Jewish residents would not be transferred out of these neighborhoods.

Reiter divides the issues into two categories: subjective problems, which the government can fix and improve, and objective problems. The first on the list of subjective problems is poor infrastructure.

“In some of the neighborhoods only the main road is properly paved and has sidewalks,” says Reiter. “There’s nowhere to park, no sidewalks, no street or traffic signs. This doesn’t stop the police from giving tickets, though, because it’s still illegal to park in certain places. Village leaders are in constant negotiations with the police, but nothing has been settled yet.”

The second subjective problem is planning and land.

“There’s been no land settlement in Jerusalem,” says Reiter. “The building permit application submission process is very complicated, and as a result, there is a lot of illegal construction.

Even when a plan is instituted, it doesn’t allow for enough units to be built, and so they build illegally, like what happened in Jebl Mukaber. In Nof Zion, the Jewish neighborhood that borders Jebl Mukaber, where a few dozen families live, there is a building rate of 340%. In Jebl Mukaber, however, there are 20,000 residents and yet the building rate is only 170%.” Reiter also claims that there is an acute shortage of school facilities. As a result, many classes meet in private homes. In addition, there are almost no children’s playgrounds. In all of east Jerusalem, there are only three playgrounds.

The third subjective problem is services.

In contrast with the rest of Jerusalem, where each residential building has its own communal garbage container, in east Jerusalem there are only a few huge green garbage containers on main streets and they fill up quickly.

Many of the smaller streets are too narrow for the garbage collection trucks to enter. For example, in Sur Bahir, garbage trucks can access only about 30% of the streets. In the remaining 70%, residents are requested to carry their garbage to the end of the street, which can be up to a kilometer from their home. The municipality promised to provide Sur Bahir residents large plastic bags and to send in tractors to remove the garbage from narrow streets, but this promise has not been kept.

And of course there’s the issue of Jewish families living inside the Arab neighborhoods, which has been causing great tension for years now. For example, Jewish families have moved into the City of David within Silwan, Nahalat Shimon within Sheikh Jarrah, Nof Zion in Ras el-Amud and Jebl Mukaber, and Ma’aleh Zeitim in E-Tur.

Some of these plots were purchased by Jews as far back as the 19th century.

“Look at Abu Tor, for example: the west section is Jewish and the eastern side is Arab. The Jewish side is clean and the Arab side is filthy. It was the same back in [mayor] Teddy Kollek’s time as well. Teddy definitely did a lot to improve the atmosphere and create dialogue, but he didn’t have a lot of funds. So mostly there was a successful public relations campaign, but no real results.”

Reiter also notes that on the other hand, the Palestinian community has not made any efforts to cooperate with the Jerusalem municipality, since that would entail recognition and acceptance of the Israeli “occupation.”

Civilians and soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“If they would just cooperate, they could demand that they receive services they deserve by law. Instead, they follow the lead of their mukhtars, who do not show any leadership capabilities.”

Reiter continues. “Since they build homes illegally, they’re preventing the municipality from building community centers or roads. There’s a huge culture clash here, since in Middle Eastern culture, individuals have never taken responsibility for public spaces.

“The Israeli public views the police as a security force, and not as a service provider.

The Arab community, on the other hand, views the police as a deterrent force. The police tend to station themselves near schools, so they become a magnet for young people who are bored.

One thing we’d like to change is to make it clear to them that there are two types of policemen: green and blue. The green (Border Police) are there to enforce quiet and the blue (standard police) are there to offer services. I must say that there’s been an obvious increase of police presence in east Jerusalem since the summer of 2014.”

This doesn’t, however, deal with the problem of weapons. Exactly a year ago, the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee held a heated debate about illegal weapons in the Arab sector. MKs from the Arab Joint List claimed that the police are not doing enough to eradicate this problem.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan replied that police forces were making great efforts to enforce the law in Arab neighborhoods, but that they encounter many difficulties due to residents’ active opposition to the presence of Jewish policemen.

“The municipality does not have enough resources to deal with all of these issues properly. It would take billions of shekels to bridge the gap between the eastern and western parts of the city. We at the Jerusalem Institute are preparing workable solutions, such as involving Arab community leaders in the planning and zoning process, and working on projects that won’t take 20 years to implement. We should focus on specific small projects led by local Arab leaders so that we can see some improvement.”

“The level of services in east Jerusalem is even worse than in Arab villages in the West Bank,” says MK Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), a former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). “The neglect there is heart-wrenching, so they look for alternative solutions. In addition, east Jerusalem residents come in and out of Jerusalem by foot and by car without any supervision by the police or army, since technically these areas are under Jerusalem municipality control and not the IDF. This situation is not new and has a strong impact on Israel’s security. So when there’s increased tension, it’s certainly not surprising that lone-wolf attackers come from these neighborhoods.”

“The State of Israel has not yet decided what it wants to do with east Jerusalem,” Reiter says. “On the one hand, it espouses strong rhetoric that Jerusalem is one unified city. But if we look at what happened when West and East Berlin were united, they made great efforts to equalize funding in the two sections of the city. That has not happened here in Jerusalem. Israel has also not offered Arab residents of east Jerusalem citizenship, instead creating a temporary system of rights. If we really want Jerusalem to be unified, we need to narrow the gap and offer east Jerusalem residents equal rights.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally published in Ma’ariv.

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